When to Not Imitate Jesus

As disciples of Jesus, we seek to follow Jesus–to be like him as much as possible while on earth. This conformity to Christ is a foretaste of future glory, when, as John writes, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Yet today’s Gospel (Lk 6:6-11) offers an example of Jesus that we can’t follow. Something we shouldn’t imitate or even attempt! Here’s the setting: Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, where a man with a “withered” hand is present. Scribes and Pharisees are watching Jesus closely to see what he will do–will Jesus heal on the sabbath?

Jesus engages in demonstration (healing the man) and careful dialogue with the onlookers. These actions and words are deliberately provocative. Designed to elicit a response. And what kind of response? Well, it could be a response of radical conversion, of a new openness, of definitive life-change. On the other hand, it could be a response of anger, of circling the wagons, of increased frustration or outrage. Jesus indeed takes a situation that could have entrapped him and turns it into a question that “traps” the scribes and Pharisees, “is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

As modern day disciples, we could look at this example and think to ourselves, That’s right! I need to think up questions that “trap” and provoke in a way that leads to rage on the part of those I converse with!

But, this would miss an absolutely important detail. A critical, humbling detail that reminds us that while Jesus is fully divine, we are simply human. Before the “trap” of this episode occurs, Luke the Evangelist explains that Jesus “realized their intentions.” Jesus knew the intentions of those who questioned him. Jesus completely understood their response and ramifications.

But us? No. We do not know the intentions of those we converse with. Of those we meet in the public square. Of those we interact with online. Of those who enter our churches.

Unlike Jesus, we are not in the position to know the intentions of others–their deepest motivations, longings, hurts, and (sometimes) hidden or emerging relationship with God. We can guess a little, but at best this is merely an assumption, especially if we haven’t developed a genuine relationship with the person.

Sometimes, in a society where conversation and dialogue can seem like a “battle,” it can be easy for us to make an idol of “winning” a conversation, making “an example” of those who disagree with us, or trapping others in a way that is less than charitable. Yet this is a dangerous path for us to take!

Unlike Jesus, we never know the full intentions of another. What presents itself as aggressive questioning of our Christian faith may really be a hidden wound or genuine curiosity. A question that comes across wrong or rudely may not be fully intended that way. As evangelizers, we must take the route of greatest charity, of greatest openness to the possibility that God is ready to work in those we meet.

Right now.

Even in the midst of an uncomfortable conversation or a debate that makes us feel a little defensive.

As we evangelize, let us remember this simple truth–Jesus knows the intentions of all. We do not. May the Holy Spirit grant us the wisdom and charity to speak and act accordingly.

a version of this post also appears at NewEvangelizers.com

Turn Until You Know Jesus: The Feast of Mary Magdalene

From Lorraine Cuddeback via I Have Seen the Lord | Daily Theology, a Gospel message for today:

“Mary’s hopelessness is almost palatable.

The angels that appear — those who so helpfully explain the meaning of the empty tomb in Mark, Matthew, and Luke — cannot draw Mary’s attention in this narrative.

Her weeping overwhelms her sight, her senses, and she offers no reaction to the two men suddenly sitting where the head and feet of Jesus should have been. Instead, she only reiterates the problem: “I don’t know where they laid him.” Mary is lost in her grief until Jesus himself calls her name:

She turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. (Jn 20:14-16)

Read the passage carefully, and you’ll see that she turns twice — she turns towards Jesus when she first sees him, but does not know him. Then, despite supposedly looking at him to ask her question, she turns again when he calls her name.”

Turning.

Turning evokes another mightily important New Testament word, metanoia.

Though sometimes translated to English as “repentance,” metanoia is much more–it’s a full turning, conversion. And, conversion of one’s whole self. Heart. Mind. Soul. Body. Everything conversion.

This is why I love that Mary the Magdalene turns twice. Many of us raised in Christian settings “saw” Jesus from a young age. We learned of Him and objectively experienced Him in sacraments (even if our dispositions were lacking faith…). But, we may not have known Him. Personally. Sometimes it’s the second (or third! or fourth! etc.) turning that’s true metanoia, the conversion that allows us to exclaim from the depths of our hearts and souls, like Mary, Rabbouni–a personal term of relationship with Jesus.

Turn once. Turn twice. Turn thrice. The important thing, is to turn as metanoia. Experience, as Pope Emeritus Benedict encouraged, “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, para. 1). Turn.

Turn

Image: CC 2.0 via Ivan (Flickr)

God’s Great Rescue, Urgency, and You

“I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.” (Psalm 30:2a)

Today on the 4th Monday of Lent we respond to God’s Word with in the words of the Psalmist David, I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me (Psalm 30, in context or within Mass).

This response begs the question–from what, precisely, has God rescued you?

To be rescued implies that each of us, personally, was in need of rescue. God didn’t just pluck us from being “basically a nice person,” “pretty good,” or “okay” and raise us to something else. No–God rescues. God does something that none of us could ever do for ourselves. God offers a power beyond our attempts at self-improvement or “self-rescue.”

The Gospel of Salvation in Jesus Christ is indeed Good News (this is what the Greek word we translate as Gospel, euvangelion, literally means). Good News (like rescue) implies, however, that the status quo was not good. The status quo was the opposite of Good News.

For decades, change leadership theorist John Kotter has asserted that establishing a sense of urgency is a critical first step to effectively changing organizational behavior. I wonder, if the challenges and hesitations that organizations (large and small) and even individuals have when it comes to intentionally evangelizing flow from (among other things) a lack of urgency.

For example, if I don’t really feel like I’ve been “rescued” by the Lord–you know, I kind of feel like…hey, life was pretty good and being in relationship with God is just some bonus icing on the cake–then why would I be motivated to lead others to the Lord? If being a part of a local church is a nice lifestyle choice, but not something that flows from a necessary “rescue”–then why should I go out and invite others in?

So, consider again today’s Psalm response: “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.” (Psalm 30:2a)

What is it the Lord rescued you from? When you made the “fundamental decision” of your life to be a Christian after encountering Jesus Christ, what was the life you left behind as you turned to your “new horizon” with a “decisive direction”? (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1) Being able to name, to put into words the unique rescue God did in your life is a critical piece of testimony. In fact, if you struggle with sharing personal testimony, then just simply describing your own personal rescue can be a great start. This is a powerful testimony in and of itself–not further story required!

As I pondered in prayer, Lord, what did you rescue me from when as a teenager, I made that fundamental decision? The need for a rescue became quite clear! God rescued me from single-minded pursuit of prestige and academic success, from striving for worldly success, from placing my own needs above those of others, from preferring to avoid relationships (like parenting) that stretch one’s virtues, from being uncertain about the possibility of eternal salvation, from tacitly assuming that as a pretty-good-person-not-an-axe-murderer, heaven was pretty much automatic on my own merits, from doubt in the free grace of salvation, from fear of sacrifices or zealousness in faith. Quite the rescue 🙂

Name your rescue story. Share it. And, let your experience of God rescuing you become fuel for a renewed urgency of evangelization for all those around you!

The Faith to Evangelize When We Don’t See Fruit

“I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.” Hard words from today’s Gospel (Mt 10:34-11:1). But, I’m going to warn you in advance–just to temper your expectations–today’s blog post isn’t really about this message in Matthew. And it certainly won’t explain it. But is is about witness. And memory. And the mystery of the Kingdom of God.

So here’s how the story begins, every year when I hear today’s distinctively hard and confusing Gospel, I’m transported back to when I heard a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain named Fr. Paul deliver a homily on this text at a daily Mass at Camp Victory, just outside of the city of Baghdad, Iraq.

For two months I lived on Camp Victory and had the blessing of frequently attending daily Mass with a handful of other U.S. troops–setting up aluminum chairs and then quickly hurrying back to our duties. I can’t remember Fr. Paul’s last name, or even his rank. I do remember his voice, his Iowan accent that sounded exactly like the M*A*S*H* character Radar O’Reilly. Fr. Paul was incredibly pastoral–one weekday in August that year, during the prayers of the faithful, I prayed for my parents on their anniversary. Afterwards he asked me, “would you like me to send a holy card to your parents? I’ve got some in my backpack and I included them as an intention of this Mass.” I’m sure he knew that as a deployed young adult, I’d probably forgotten to send them a card and would be hard pressed to find the time or available phone that day to give them a call [he was right].

For today’s Gospel reading, however, Fr. Paul didn’t prepare a typical homily. Instead he told us, somewhat haltingly, of a conversation he’d had weeks prior with an Iraqi Christian man on the base. Fr. Paul was visiting him to minister to him and they started talking about this Gospel passage. The man explained with passion how this Gospel message spoke to him. Jesus was speaking of his experiences–of having his faith in Jesus the Messiah and conversion to Christianity be a divide in his family and those around him. There was probably more to the story that Fr. Paul didn’t share with us–as I can still remember how he seemed ever so slightly choked up. He was humbled by the man’s witness and the mystery of how the Kingdom of God comes to be planted and nourished in each of us, nourished in ways beyond our human comprehension.

As I mentioned earlier, I only stayed at Camp Victory for two months. I probably didn’t visibly grow much in my faith under Fr. Paul’s pastoral care. I still don’t remember his last name. During combat deployment, troops move around a lot–and so the next time I was around Camp Victory for a visit (months later) I stopped by the chapel, and Fr. Paul had redeployed back to the U.S. But, I remember his witness–just as he remembered the witness of the Iraqi Christian he discussed today’s Gospel with.

Catholic chaplains are among the most underrepresented chaplains in the U.S. military in proportion to the religious identification of troops. As the Archdiocese for the Military Services explains, “Chaplains often speak about the exciting, creative nature of their ministry. They seek ways to reach out and connect with the different people they serve on a personal level, an opportunity they note is hard to come by in a civilian parish.” But here’s the flip-side, with the short contact many chaplains have with troops, they very often don’t get to see the seed of the Word of God grow within those they care for. They may plant, tend, and/or water the seed of the Word, but do not always have the opportunity to glimpse the fruits that emerge after many seasons or years.

While military chaplains illustrate this in a particularly vivid way, isn’t it really the same for all of us as evangelists?

We can and should take concrete actions to create an environment of trust and experience of God’s love, so that we can preach the message of salvation. We can and should cultivate conditions for the un-evangelized to then respond to the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. We can and should offer the ongoing catechesis and formation in and through sacraments. We can and should form ourselves and others to continue this cycle of evangelization.

But, we rarely directly experience seeing the mystery of the Kingdom of God, the mystery of the Word implanted in a heart, unfold in one person through every stage of evangelization. As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). We are “God’s co-workers”–every person we meet is “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:8-9). We may not see the the fruit of every seed we plant, or every small tree we water.

I remember the witness of Fr. Paul. I remember the witness of the Iraqi Christian man he spoke to. The seed of the Word of God was nourished in me, through them. They are both God’s co-workers–even though neither will likely ever know (this side of eternity) what fruits in my life either contributed to.

Be then an evangelizing, co-worker of God! Whether tilling soil, planting seeds, watering or harvesting–what you do matters, even if you do not see the fruits.

This essay originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com.

With Gratitude for the Acts of the Apostles: Why I’m Catholic

When I get asked why I go to a Catholic church or what made me “decide to be Catholic” (which is the usual way people ask), my answer is simple—the Acts of the Apostles. Now, of course there were other things at work—the Holy Spirit, the grace of the Eucharist I’d been receiving, and so forth—but on the level of my intellect the Acts of the Apostles played a major role.

What was it that struck me, a young adult who also regularly attended Bible studies at other Christian churches, about this book of the Bible?

It wasn’t the spectacular witness of early martyrdom and persecution, or the stunning conversion of Saul/Paul.

No, it was the ordinary things, the sheer humanity present in the Acts of the Apostles. In short, the community of believers—the early Church—had no idea where the Holy Spirit was leading them, yet through dispute and discovery, the Church slowly grew into herself.

In Acts, we find the messiness of being a universal Church. There are plenty of occasions of Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) complaining about the Hebrews (Jerusalem-area Jews) and visa-versa. There is of course, the awkward situation where new followers completely miss the point, and Paul and Barnabas get mistaken for the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus. Eventually, serious debates over food laws and circumcision result in Council of Jerusalem, the forerunner of all future councils.

And even though miracles and healings abound, not even the Apostles understand at the beginning that God’s will is for a robust mission to the Gentiles. No, they have to discover all this through an Ethiopian eunuch’s surprising request for baptism and the testimony of Cornelius, a Gentile.

But, through all of this, the community of disciples—the Church—sticks together. Even though all of the apostles, missionaries, and co-workers featured in Acts often have different thoughts on how to live out the will of God, they keep coming back together to discern and decide. They do not view the mission of Christ they’ve been given as something static, but as a living call. As they come to more fully understand this, I’m reminded of our Catholic sense of development of doctrine—a maturation, or growth in depth and clarity of how we understand our faith.

For many who live outside of the visible bounds of the Catholic Church, it’s not so much our particular beliefs, but the how—the idea of councils, the papal office, and deepening of doctrines over the centuries—that seems an obstacle to our full and perfect communion as brothers and sisters in Christ.

And so at the end of every Easter season (I admit it…I don’t love going back to Ordinary Time 😉 ), I think about how much of a gift this book, the Acts of the Apostles, is to us as believers. Writings that can open our eyes to the dynamic potential of our Church, sticking together in times of trial and working out God’s call for us, in each and every age.

A version of this post originally appeared at newevangelizers.com.

Jesus’ Love in Words

Jesus’ passion and death by crucifixion reveal the depths of his incredible love for each of us. As Paul reflected decades later, “only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). Jesus’ actions speak louder than any words.

But in today’s Gospel (John 17:11-19), we get a glimpse of Jesus’ love for us through his words of prayer to God the Father. Read John 17 in context. This is no relaxed moment of prayer. The tension and drama are thick as Jesus prepares for the Cross. Yet he takes time to pray on our behalf, asking three main petitions.

1. His first petition is this: “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.”

This is what’s most on Jesus’ heart at this critical moment. He wants us to experience oneness with God, communion and love with Creator of the universe, just as he has for all eternity. What love, that Jesus’ first words are an intimate desire for us to share in this love fully. Not just a little bit. Not just a glimpse. But fully.

2. Secondly, Jesus asks his Father to protect us, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one.”

Now if we think about it, maybe we think it would have been better for Jesus to ask God to take us out of the world! I mean, the world is full of sin, suffering, injustice, and more. But Jesus’ love is full of confidence in his followers. Confidence that those who believe in him have a positive, constructive role to play in the world. His love is confident enough to give us the gift of free will–to choose to enter into loving relationship with God and remain there, to abide in him. Yet he knows it’s not easy, and he asks God to protect us from the evil one.

3. Finally, Jesus asks for us to be made powerfully holy, praying to God, “Consecrate them in the truth.” To be consecrated is to be chosen, to be set aside as sacred and holy. To be consecrated is our powerful preparation for our work in the world, for remaining in love and communion with God despite the temptations of evil.

And here’s what’s great about this prayer of Jesus. When you and I pray, we sometimes experience doubt. We wonder if God hears our prayers–if they “work.” But this is Jesus praying–God’s only begotten and beloved Son. Jesus is praying on our behalf. Are his prayers powerful? Of course! Be confident and encouraged that Jesus’ love and prayers go beyond our physical notions of time and space. He prayed for you. He prayed for me. That all of us would be one with God the Father, protected from evil, and set apart and made holy for accomplishing God’s work here on earth. Let us respond to this love with ever more joy and confidence!

a version of this post originally appeared at newevangelizers.com

Ideal Evangelization? Don’t Hold Your Breath

At first glance, what we find in Acts 17 (today’s daily Mass readings) seems pretty standard. A Christian guy sees that the people around him aren’t worshipping the true God. So he starts talking to people. Preaches Jesus and the Resurrection. They invite him to speak more and give him a microphone on one of the most prestigious stages in town.

He does all the right things—“meets them where they’re at,” and tells the story of God, proclaims the kerygma—he doesn’t get interrupted, doesn’t have to field any tough questions, doesn’t get any specific objections.

Some believe, some want to hear more, some are out the door. Sounds like a great event for the New Evangelization! Maybe I should volunteer to plan one of these in my parish…

At first glance, this episode of Paul in Athens does seem like the ideal evangelization, but really, there’s no such thing.

It’s all about our own attentiveness and response to the Holy Spirit, wherever we are and whatever we discern our mission to be.

In Chapter 17, we find Paul in Athens on his second missionary journey of Acts. This journey started out in Antioch of Syria with an experienced mission partner, Barnabas, and a pretty straightforward plan, as we read in Chapter 15, to “visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” To visit fellow believers in synagogues.

Not out to convert anyone or do evangelization—just some pastoral care and catechesis. A focus on maintaining the flock.

But right away, Paul discerns that the Holy Spirit does not want him to preach in Asia—and unlike many of us, when we are afraid to move outside the boundaries of our own plans—Paul responds, and heads to Greece.

Before he can visit any of the synagogues to check on fellow believers, he keeps getting interrupted—baptizing Lydia, a Gentile woman, and getting thrown in jail for healing a slave girl.

When he finally does get to preach in synagogues with believers, he ends up getting chased out of town by mobs, and only escapes by hopping on a boat headed to Athens 200 miles away.

Now Paul is stuck with barely any familiar synagogues to visit, and with nothing to do but wait for the rest of his missionary team to get on down to Athens—unless he was to step outside of his plan. We see the Holy Spirit is working on him and working through him, sending him beyond his preconceived notion of “his flock.” 

Paul is ready to evangelize wherever he is, willing to step outside his preconceived notions of mission and evangelization. This is one of our great challenges in the New Evangelization.

For decades, many of our habits and practices of parish life have tacitly assumed that sacramentalized Catholics are evangelized Catholics, that Catholic culture is enough to transmit the faith. In our setting today, this has proven to no longer be the case. Evangelization must also be directed at baptized Catholics, nominal Catholics, those hurt by the Church, and those who have gradually slipped away from belief.

At first, Paul is shocked by the idolatry he sees in Athens. But his response is deeper than just a surface emotion. The Greek text indicates an irritation of Paul’s spirit, a distressed state, a continuous pained reaction to what he is observing. It’s not an anger, an attempt to push values, or desire to be right that drives his actions, but sincere concern, a love and generosity for those who don’t know God the Creator, who don’t know Christ and the resurrection.

The Holy Spirit is cultivating a love for people Paul doesn’t even know. The Holy Spirit is stirring up the conviction that a bold witness to them is worth the risk, even if not part of the plan.

And so Paul expands his vision, dramatically. Having the confidence to take the message of Christ outside the boundaries of the synagogues he knows, to the unexpected people and places God is calling him.

What does this mean for me? Maybe it means helping my parish shift focus beyond initiatory catechesis through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and children’s religious education programs to a greater investment in evangelizing Catholic adults, who can go on to evangelize their children and others. Or maybe it means helping to push outside the physical boundaries of the parish, offering the critical initial proclamation of Jesus Christ where people are—in neighborhoods, cafes, and public spaces.

For some of us, it might mean looking a historically Catholic neighborhood that has undergone great demographic change, and devoting increased resources to the newer population of the parish area, rather than simply maintaining the flock of older parishioners in the pews.

The example of Paul in Chapter 17 of Acts encourages each of us to listen to the Holy Spirit and abide in the Spirit’s guidance and care. So many of our most well intentioned routines are designed with a focus on those who are in the pews each week. While this is certainly important, Paul’s missionary journey reminds us to look outward, to move beyond our self-imposed notions of who we are to evangelize.

Our New Evangelization won’t look exactly like Paul in Athens. We won’t get results by trying to simply replicate Paul’s speech at the Aeropagus.

What we can do is seek the Holy Spirit—and when the Spirit points us outward in the New Evangelization, we have to respond. Even if, like Paul we’re out of our comfort zone, working away from the familiar synagogues of believers, and beyond how we’ve previously envisioned pastoral care or catechesis. In the end, like Paul, we can respond with a fierce urgency, an urgency driven by love for those who are away from or do not know the love of Christ in His Church.

This post originally appeared at newevangelizers.com